More concussions reported among LAUSD athletes, but also better monitoring
Mike Szymanski | March 17, 2016
Rising concussion numbers have spurred LA Unified to examine how to better monitor head injuries and ensure the safety of student athletes.
“I love football,” said board member Richard Vladovic, who noted that this week the NFL for the first time recognized a link between football and brain disorders. “But I’m very concerned about long-term effects on our children. We need to look at this for our children and warn families of the risks.”
The Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee asked for a report on sports safety with the possibility of bringing additional safety recommendations to the full board. Their call comes in the wake of last year’s Will Smith biopic “Concussion” about the doctor who brought the issue to light.
The LA Unified statistics presented Tuesday to the committee show that 222 concussions or possible concussion injuries have occurred so far this year, compared to 199 for the entire 2014-2015 school year. But it doesn’t mean that more concussions have occurred, only that the district has better ways of identifying and reporting them.
LA Unified has 30,000 students involved in 14 sports from golf to water polo. Cheering will become an official sport districtwide in the 2017-2018 school year.
“We feel these are only a portion of actual concussions,” said the district’s director of student medical services, Dr. Kimberly Uyeda. “I think we are doing better in collecting the data.”
Trenton Cornelius, the district’s Interscholastic Athletics Coordinator, noted that the statistics may be alarming and said more concussions occur in soccer than football. He said, “It appears like we are doing worse, but we are getting better with treatment and diagnosis about concussions. Our athletic personnel are trained, and it is due to the training that we see the concussion numbers have increased. I fully expect this trend will decline as more safety protocols are in place. We see an increase because now there is education and training to diagnose and report, so this is the only way that we have documentation to see that these kids are treated.
In the past, students who were hit on the field and knocked down but say they are OK would be put back into the game immediately, but that doesn’t happen anymore, insisted Earl Perkins, the assistant superintendent for school operations. He said that six high schools have medically trained personnel at games through a pilot program, and they hope to expand that in the future.
“You don’t have to be unconscious to have a concussion. There are subtle signs that people who are trained appropriately can pick up,” said Uyeda. She said that the district is guided by state laws, strict guidelines and forms required by the district. “The conventional wisdom you have to be knocked out is long gone. Our professional development and continual training are important.”
The new MiSiS computer system coordination is expected to help track students who have a history of head injuries as they go from sport to sport, but the record-keeping has only now begun, Cornelius said.
“In the last few years we have had the ability to track [students with multiple concussions], but that’s only as good as the reporting,” Uyeda said.
Coach Manuel Douglas of the championship Narbonne High School football team said he was not concerned about the school board looking into the sport’s safety. He and his staff have been regularly trained on medical signs, and their helmets and shoulder pads are inspected annually like at every LA Unified school.
“Football is a violent game,” Douglas said. “Knock on wood, we have not had many concussions. We train differently, so that it’s not as likely we’ll get as many head injuries. We’re not always a full-go contact during practices.”
Even volunteer coaches, such as Narbonne’s volunteer assistant coach Brandon Manumaleuna, must meet a full list of fingerprint and background checks and have training in CPR, concussions and other first-aid care on a regular basis.
“I don’t expect that they’ll take football out of the school district,” Douglas laughed.
In fact, school board member George McKenna pointed out, “When we have budget cuts and we talk about cutting athletics, the community rises up like nothing else. They’d rather not go to school five days a week than cut athletics.”
Every student participating in sports must have a medical clearance before they join a team. State laws have specific procedures that don’t allow students to return to play for at least seven days after a concussion, and only with outside medical approval.
“It makes it so that there are no mistakes and that a student is not allowed to play sooner than they should,” Uyeda said. “It is not determined by the school or a coach.”
Vladovic said he thinks there should be a warning to all parents. “I don’t want to take dreams away, but we also have legal obligations.”
The district has strict rules about playing and practicing in the heat and when games are delayed due to high or low temperatures. Also, because of concerns about child abuse such as in a case in Torrance Unified School District, Cornelius assured the committee that “there are no procedures where any athlete would be disrobed either fully or partially.”
The athletics staff was asked to come back to the committee in May to give details about the forms that families are asked to sign and the warnings parents are given about students playing sports. They also wanted to know details about how it is determined when a student can no longer play sports after suffering too many injuries.
Board member Monica Ratliff, who admitted she is not necessarily a football fan, added, “We want to make sure our students are safe while out there.”